Jame Retief

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Jame Retief is the main character in a series of satirical science fiction stories by Keith Laumer. The stories were written over a span of thirty years beginning in the early 1960s, without much regard for chronology or any particular scheme.

Detailing the travails of Jame Retief in the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne (CDT) the stories have a base in Laumer's experiences in the United States Foreign Service, notably his time as vice consul in Burma in the 1950s. Reorganisations in the Foreign Service both before and after World War II were a source of considerable conflict at the time, as the diplomatic "old guard" were confronted with a new world situation and a new generation of diplomats, men like Laumer, who took a more pragmatic approach to the service. This conflict undoubtedly informs the Retief stories, in which stubborn and often ignorant superiors mired in bureaucracy cause him endless difficulties in the carrying out of his duties.[1]

The first Retief story, Diplomat At Arms, appeared in the magazine Fantastic Science Fiction Stories (volume 9, number 1) in January 1960.

Algis Budrys noted that the name "Retief" is, approximately, "fighter pronounced backwards."[2]

History, skills and appearance[edit]

Retief himself is described only in the broadest of terms. His history is never recounted, and very little is revealed about his life prior to joining the CDT. He apparently holds a rank of minor nobility on a planet ruled by a feudal-style aristocracy,[3] but his motivations for joining the CDT are never explained. His physical appearance is rarely described in anything but the broadest terms (for example, in Retief's War, it is stated that he is 6'3" tall), though his activities within the stories indicate that he is physically fit and quite athletic, with unusual upper-body strength. In the various stories, Retief can be found swimming, skiing, mountain climbing, scuba diving, combat driving, and piloting various types of air- and spacecraft. He also shows a wide knowledge of history, art, languages, and politics, usually beyond that of his superiors in the CDT.

According to Jan Strnad, who adapted several Retief stories into a comic book series published by Mad Dog Comics in the mid-80s, Laumer informed him that he had always pictured Retief as having black hair, and looking somewhat like Cary Grant. Laumer also indicated that he was displeased with the covers of the mid-80s Baen Books reprintings of the Retief books, since they presented Retief as a blond-haired character. (The model for these book covers was Corbin Bernsen.)

In many of the stories Retief is shown to have a taste for fine wine, though he doesn't hesitate to down a prospector's homemade booze if offered. He also enjoys fine cigars and fine food as well. One also notices that women in the storylines tend to fall for him even if they are taken already, and he behaves more like a gentleman than anyone while simultaneously being the most uncouth by disregarding Corps protocol.

The origins of the character's name are likely South African: "Retief" is an Afrikaans surname common among the descendants of French Huguenots in South Africa. During an interview with Paul Walker (found in "Speaking of Science Fiction", 1972), Laumer states,

Inadvertently, I dredged the name Retief up from the depths of my subconscious; I could taste the flavor of the name, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. I thought of various place names such as Tenerife and Recife and finally Retief popped into my mind. Many years later, Jack Gaughan pointed out to me that an actual historical character named Retief had lived in South Africa and had been massacred by the Zulus and been mentioned in an H. Rider Haggard novel, Marie. I had read the book but had no conscious recollection of it.


In the course of the stories, Retief encounters and resolves problems, usually between multiple parties, on numerous worlds. Whether establishing new missions on alien worlds, dealing with the clash of self-determination with established interests, preventing war, or solving cultural clashes, the devil is in the detail. He is master of derring-do, a cunning, fast-thinking, smooth-talking, tough brawler, solving problems through the rapid application of clever dealing, judicious violence, and complete disregard for the directives of the Corps and his immediate superiors. In contrast, most of his fellow diplomats in the CDT are protocol-obsessed, petty, small-minded, arrogant, ignorant, cowardly, and notoriously corrupt. Naturally Retief's career in the CDT is often stalled and he is very poorly regarded by his peers. The only member of the CDT who has any respect whatsoever for Retief's resourcefulness (grudging though it may be) is Retief's immediate superior, a feckless, pencil-pushing career bureaucrat named Ben Magnan who often ends up in the field with Retief.

Many stories begin with a quote from the official CDT history, praising the Corps' high-minded ideals and giving all the credit for the triumph in the following story to anyone other than Retief. Targets of bureaucratic and geo-political excess skewered by Laumer include hair-splitting diplomatic protocol (often represented by required dress — the early late evening hemidemisemi-formalwear, for example), meaningless awards (the fig leaf with clusters), the Cold War (the alien race known as the Groaci are direct analogues to the USSR in many stories, as were the Klingons early in the Star Trek franchise), and a panoply of excruciatingly-nuanced facial expressions, catalogued by number in the official CDT handbook, and exemplified in the following quote:

"A most perceptive observation, Chester," Earlyworm said, bestowing a 24-w (Gracious Condescension) leavened with a hint of 7-y (Expectation of Great Things in Due Course) on the lucky bureaucrat, at which his fellow underlings around the table were quick to bombard him with approbation, ranging from Faintlady's 12.7-x (Knew You Had It In You, Fella) to Felix's more restrained 119-a (We're All Pulling For You, Lad), to which he responded with a shy 3-v (Modest Awareness of Virtue).

"In fact," Earlyworm interjected a Cold Return to Objectivity (91-s) into the lightning interplay of ritual grimacing...


Reviewing Galactic Diplomat, an early Retief collection, Algis Budrys reported that he "enjoyed the daylights out of this book, without for an instant being able to distinguish between one story and the next."[2]

Theodore Sturgeon rather caustically dismissed the series in 1971, saying "I find nothing admirable or amusing about lies and double-dealing... What slams the ultimate lid on the whole scam is Laumer/Retief's light-hearted callousness toward one species or another of funny little green niggers."[4]

Connections to the Bolo series[edit]

The Retief stories seem to have a loose connection to the Bolo stories, also created by Laumer. Several Retief stories make references to the Concordiat of the Bolo series (There are hints that the Concordiat had ceased to exist by the time of Retief). There are also brief references of technology mentioned in the Bolo works. In the Retief story "Courier", a Bolo tank makes an appearance. In "Cultural Exchange", Bolo Model WV/1 tractors are mentioned for strip mining. They are Continental Siege Units with half-megaton-per-second firepower—plus a blade added for demolition work. However, it is not known whether or not Laumer intended for both series to be treated as one universe, or just have similar elements.

Retief Novels and Stories[edit]

In order of publication.

  • "Diplomat-at-Arms", Fantastic, January 1960. In his gray-haired years, Retief goes undercover on a planet of cavaliers to see if the Emperor really has returned, and is fomenting intergalactic war.
  • "The Frozen Planet", IF Worlds of Science Fiction, September, 1961. Retitled "Courier". The CDT's toughest diplomat busts heads to reach a hardscrabble planet facing imminent invasion.
  • "Mightiest Quorn", IF Worlds of Science Fiction, 1961. Retitled "Ultimatum". The ostrich-like Quorn order the local Terrans to evacuate or suffer war, until Retief steps in.
  • "Gambler's World", IF, November, 1961. Retitled "Palace Revolution". Dodging assassins, Retief and Magnan enter a gambling hall to find a kingpin gambling with his planet's future.
  • "The Yillian Way", IF, January 1962. Retitled "Protocol". The Yill deliberately insult the Terran ambassadors, and only Retief will drop "protocol" and fight back.
  • "Retief of Red-Tape Mountain", IF, February 1962. Retitled "Sealed Orders". Human settlers and ray-like "Flapjacks" feud in the desert, so Retief walks into enemy territory with a packet of sealed orders as his only weapon.
  • "The Madman from Earth", IF, March 1962. Retitled "Policy". Stationed on the Groaci home planet, Retief bucks policy and throttles necks to find Terran scouts who vanished nine years ago.
  • "Aide Memoire", IF, July 1962. The Fustians are saddled with burdensome carapaces, rebellious youth, and Groaci advisors, until Retief pulls aside a few curtains.
  • "Cultural Exchange", IF, September 1962. So-called "students", "tractors", and "baggage" are on route to an agricultural paradise, until Retief bobbles their paperwork.
  • "The Desert and the Stars", IF Worlds of Science Fiction, November 1962. Retitled "Protest Note". When the Aga Kaga's neo-Mongol hordes land on the planet Flamme, Retief volunteers to deliver the CDT's protest note - along with a stiff uppercut.
  • "Saline Solution", IF, March 1963. Hardscabble miners claim one asteroid, corporate lawyers offer a second, and Retief proves the third time's the charm.
  • "The Governor of Glave", IF Worlds of Science Fiction, November 1963. Retitled "Native Intelligence". On Glave, the proles have overthrown the technicians, and the infrastructure is falling apart - until Retief makes the rounds.
  • "Rank Injustice". A ship bearing 400 alien ambassadors sees every one pull rank to take command when it's holed by a meteor, leaving Retief and Magnan to investigate who planted the meteor.
  • Envoy to New Worlds, 1963. Collects "Protocol", "Sealed Orders", "Cultural Exchange", "Aide Memoire", "Policy", "Palace Revolution", "Rank Injustice". Retitled Retief: Envoy to New Worlds.
  • "The City That Grew in the Sea", IF, March 1964. Retitled "Wicker Wonderland". The amphibious Poonians live on a vast floating mat of seagrass and wicker, but when Retief goes SCUBA diving, he uncovers a plot to make them homeless.
  • "The Prince and the Pirate", IF Worlds of Science Fiction, August 1964. The monarch is grounded by CDT's fuel embargo and about to be overthrown, while Retief is framed and thrown in jail.
  • "The Castle of Light", IF, October 1964. On Yalc, the insectoids have abandoned their cities of glittering glass for the Voom Festival. The Groaci move in. And only Retief thinks to ask what "voom" means.
  • "Retief, God-Speaker", IF Worlds of Science Fiction, January 1965. Retitled "The Brass God". The Hoogans have gotten religion, and are determined to exterminate the Spisms and sacrifice Retief to Uk-Roopa-Tooty.
  • Galactic Diplomat, 1965.
  • "Retief, the Long-Awaited Master", IF Worlds of Science Fiction, 1966. Retitled "Mechanical Advantage". When Terries and the Groaci claim the abandoned planet of Verdigris, Retief and Magnan get locked in the cellar, where they meet the forgotten inhabitants.
  • "Dam Nuisance", 1966. The North Squeem have Groaci, guns, and all the region's water behind a brand new dam - but the South Squeem have Retief.
  • "Truce or Consequences", IF Worlds of Science Fiction", November, 1966. The multi-tentacled Blorts and Gloians have been fighting for two hundred years and now can't remember why, so Retief visits what's left of the university to find out.
  • Retief's War, 1966. Originally serialized in three parts in IF Worlds of Science Fiction, October–December 1965. The planet Quopp sports organic-mechanic life forms that resemble everything from electric dragonflies to living tanks and helicopters, and every tribe wars with every other. The Groaci back the most thuggish tribe to conquer every other tribe as slaves or zombies. Ducking out of the embassy, Retief runs through the jungle to unite the tribes as a resistance army and to rescue some lost Terries. He just needs to avoid being captured, tortured, shot, stomped, or eaten.
  • "Clear as Mud", IF Worlds of Science Fiction, 1967. Retitled "Grime and Punishment". On Slunch, Retief and Magnan hold the fort against mud volcanoes, plant infestations, and rampaging rodents - until the ambassador lands and makes things worse.
  • "Retief, War Criminal", IF Worlds of Science Fiction, 1967. Retitled "The Forbidden City". The Sulinoreans are fading away and the Groaci are moving in, until Retief finds unsuspected allies in the Forbidden City.
  • Retief and the Warlords, 1968. The lobster-like "Hatracks" are encroaching on frontier "Terry" space. Retief and a rogue Hatrack survive the arena to try and win peace, but the biggest obstacles are idiot commanders on both sides with CDT klutzes muddying the middle.
  • "The Piecemakers", IF Worlds of Science Fiction, 1970. Lobbed between the warring Groaci and Slox, Retief and Magnan crash land on a planet with plans of its own.
  • "Ballot and Bandits", IF Worlds of Science Fiction, 1970. The local chipmunk-beaver-folk are fighting about the upcoming election, and Retief is sent to win over the feistiest tribe, who submit him to The Ordeal.
  • "Internal Affair", IF Worlds of Science Fiction, 1970. On a planet ravaged by hurricane winds, Retief and Magnan learn the local amoeba-folk have a unique solution to housing.
  • "Pime Doesn't Cray", 1971. On Squal, where the locals look like spaghetti and speak in spoonerisms, Magnan has lost a Bolshoi-type ballet theater to the Groaci, and Retief has to steal it back.
  • Retief's Ransom, 1971. On the planet Lumbaga, the locals are conglomerates of free-floating organs who mix and match their appearance and fight continuously. The Groaci have some sinister plot afoot, but Retief first has to find his kidnapped boss Magnan.
  • Retief of the CDT, 1971. Collects "Ballots and Bandits", "Mechanical Advantage", "Pime Doesn't Cray", "Internal Affair", "The Piecemakers".
  • Retief: Emissary to the Stars, 1975. Collects "The Hoob Melon Crisis", "The Garbage Invasion", "The Troubleshooter", "The Negotiators", "Giant Killer", "The Forest in the Sky", and "Trick or Treaty".
  • "The Hoob Melon Crisis". In the land-grab for Froom 93, the Groaci introduce hoob melons, so Retief imports gribble-grubs.
  • "The Garbage Invasion", The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. A paradise planet is slated to become a Terran theme park or a Groaci dump or a Basuran slag heap, but Retief is there to turn garbage into gold.
  • "The Troubleshooter". The planet Furtheron has been invaded by the omnivorous Basturans. The colonists need an army, but only get one lone diplomat and his trusty needle gun.
  • "The Negotiators". On the water world Sogood, the "Soggies" have failed to appear, so lowest-low Retief is dispatched to question the giant leprous polliwogs lounging on shore.
  • "Giant Killer". The ambassador has accidentally agreed to destroy Crunderthush, a marauding dinosaur, and Retief is not allowed to help.
  • "The Forest in the Sky". The Groaci have designs on a planet of immense trees and its free-floating inhabitants. Retief hopes to intervene, if he's not eaten first.
  • "Trick or Treaty". On a planet where Terries are non grata, Retief employs a circus troupe to invade a battleship to thwart an invasion.
  • Retief at Large, 1978. Collects "Cultural Exchange", "Saline Solution", "The Castle of Light", "Wicker Wonderland", "The Brass God", "Mechanical Advantage", "Dam Nuisance", "Grime and Punishment", "The Forbidden City", "The Piecemakers", "Ballots and Bandits", "Pime Doesn't Cray".
  • Retief Unbound, 1979. Collects: "Protocol", "Sealed Orders", "Aide Memoire", "Policy", "Palace Revolution", "Retief's Ransom".
  • Retief: Diplomat at Arms, 1982. Collects "Ultimatum", "Native Intelligence", "The Prince and the Pirate", "Courier", "Protest Note", "Truce or Consequences". And "The Secret", first publication.
  • "The Secret", 1982, first published in Retief: Diplomat at Arms. While the Groaci torture Magnan with old cowboy movies, Retief pursues a magical tea bag used by the local amoeba-people.
  • Retief to the Rescue, 1983.
  • The Return of Retief, 1984.
  • Retief, 1986.
  • Retief in the Ruins, 1986. "All New!" contains three novellas: "Retief in the Ruins", "There is a Tide", and "The Woomy".
  • "Retief in the Ruins", 1986.
  • "There is a Tide", 1986.
  • "The Woomy", 1986.
  • Retief and the Pangalactic Pageant of Pulchritude, 1986. Original 76-page novella. The planet Glorb hosts a beauty pageant that the Groaci plan to crash with battle cruisers. Retief has allies in a handful of aliens and the last Bengal Tiger in existence. Includes reprint of Retief's Ransom.
  • Reward for Retief, 1989.
  • Retief and the Rascals, 1993.
  • Retief!, 2002. Collection edited by Eric Flint[5]
  • Retief's Peace, 2007. Created by Keith Laumer, written by William H. Keith. The imperialistic Krll have started a Peace Movement to drum Terries off the planet, while Retief may be drummed out of the CDT.


  1. ^ Prologue
  2. ^ a b "Galaxy Bookshelf", Galaxy Science Fiction, February 1966, p.137
  3. ^ Chapter 2
  4. ^ "Galaxy Bookshelf", Galaxy Science Fiction, January 1972, pp.115-16
  5. ^ Retief!

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